An Interview with ‘Life Unexpected”s Kerr Smith

When Life Unexpected began airing earlier this year, it was marketed as Juno meets Gilmore Girls. That’s not far off: It tells the tale of Lux, a 15-year-old foster child who rediscovers her biological parents, Baze, a ne’er do well running a bar, and Cate, a type-A disc jockey in a serious relationship with her co-host Ryan, played by Kerr Smith. The 38-year old Smith is a television veteran, who most famously played the gay Jack McPhee on Dawson’s Creek, though he has also appeared in series like Charmed and Eli Stone. On the eve of Life Unexpected’s season finale (tonight at 9pm on The CW—it has yet to be picked up for a second season), we talked with Smith about his character, his character’s chances of sticking around and how the show reminds him of Dawson’s.

You’ve done a lot of TV shows. Can you get a sense if a show is going to work just from walking in the room? Yeah. Every once in a while you get involved in a project where everything just kind of comes together and it’s happening with this particular show. I got that sense back when we first started back in October. I just kind of knew that it was going to do well. But you never know. It’s always up to the audience. But everybody seems to like it, which is great.

Are people coming up to you about it on the street? Quite a bit. It’s 50-50 Dawson’s Creek and Life Unexpected.

Are you super over the Dawson’s Creek recognition? I was over it ten years ago. But, Life Unexpected reminds me of Dawson’s a lot. It has the same kind of feeling, old-school WB. Hopefully, it has as much success.

The character you play on the show, Ryan, is engaged to Cate, who is Lux’s mother. And, typically, you would expect that Cate would eventually get back together with Lux’s father, Baze. When you took the part of Cate’s boyfriend, did you wonder how long Ryan really had on the show? Well, when I first read for the role, Ryan wasn’t even a series regular. He was guaranteed about two thirds of the episodes a year. It was really early in the pilot season and the scripts were so good and I really wanted to do it. And having worked with Liz [Tigelaar, the show creator] before I knew it would be awesome. So I was like, look, I want to be a part of this show, but I’m not going to come on and give up the rest of pilot season for doing nine episodes out of thirteen. So they agreed to make Ryan a series regular. I think that’s why, in the beginning, Ryan wasn’t that involved in the show. But after that we figured out what we wanted to do, which was create a weird love triangle between these three characters, with Cate in the middle and the two guys on the outside. We wanted to create a camp that rooted for Baze and a camp that rooted for Ryan, because that’s what works.

You had worked with Liz on Dawson’s? Yeah. She started on Dawson’s actually. Back then the writer’s offices were in L.A. and we were out in North Carolina so we didn’t have the relationship with the writers that we do on this show. Obviously she’s been through that and she knows how not to do it that way. She’s very smart. We have the writers come up to Vancouver [where Life shoots] all the time and they’re always on set and it’s great. We’re all one big family even though we’re in two different cities.

Do you like Vancouver? How was it living there? It rains too much for me. I don’t mind the cold. There was too much time there where I don’t think I saw the sun at all, which kind of sucked. But, it’s a cool town. It’s a great town in the summer. There’s a lot of outdoors stuff to do, hiking biking skiing, which I love. It’s a nice place to have a job.

When would you start filming again, if you get picked up? We don’t find out probably until May if we get picked up for a second season. If we do, then traditionally the CW shows start shooting early to mid July.

Having been on many WB shows before, do you feel like you know the CW brass? Oh yeah. After 12 to 14 years of doing this, you get to know everyone pretty well. It helps, but the bottom line is you have to make the dollars and we have to pull the numbers. But our numbers are great. We’re beating Gossip Girl, which is huge.

What is the most interesting thing about playing Ryan? I like being a radio DJ. I really enjoy it. It’s scripted, but a lot of times we just improvise and just kind of go off book. Shiri [Appleby, who plays Cate] and I have a real rapport. We’re actually like the characters in real life. We do the banter and we seldom agree on anything. We make fun of each other. We shoot the camera simultaneously so we can overlap and just kind of do whatever the hell we want. Sometimes, it’s by the book. Some days, you’re feeling really good about the improv and it happens.

At the beginning of your career, you were on a show where you were one of the kids and now you’re on a show where you’re one of the adults. Is that weird? It’s weird. What’s even weirder was that I was playing 16 or 17 years old when I was 26, 27. So, I never really was a kid on television – just playing one. So, it’s weird ten years later to make that change to being a parent. It’s a gradual transition. I definitely don’t play my age, that’s for sure.

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